Wednesday, April 12, 2006

The Sopranos: "Mr. and Mrs. Sacrimoni Request..." (6x05)

This week, the show tackles the issue of masculinity in the mob world, examining what behavior is acceptable and what isn't acceptable. This is done through the three primary stories, Tony's, Johnny's and Vito's. The opening of the episode, with the six week gap announced by a title is unlike anything they've done, but I guess it was necessary to explain Tony's recovery.

That said, I'm glad that they're continuing to dwell on the effect that this experience has had on him, both mentally and physically. Last episode I was a bit disappointed that he seemed to be pretty close to normal mentally, considering all the warnings the doctors had given about how he wasn't going to fully recover. So, clearly there's been some major physical deterioration, which is a problem in his circles. But more interesting is the mental transformation. He's stepped out of his world, and as a result finds it hard to adjust to being back in it.

Throughout the episode, we see how Tony is now being treated like a weak person in need of help, not unlike Junior back in the early seasons. When Carmela sends him off to work, she says "I feel like a mommy," and once he gets there, it's clearly all about making Tony comfortable and keeping things easy for him. The poker scene is wonderful because it marks the reunion of the family, with Tony taking his place at the head of the table, but also shows how far removed Tony is from their world. Despite the respect they initially show him, when he starts talking about the surgery, Silvio cuts him off and restarts the game. There is no place for that sort of introspection in the mob world.

The episode did a great job of conveying Tony's physical exhaustion. He can barely make it up the stairs, and his greatest pleasure seems to be collapsing in bed. One of my favorite scenes in the episode was Tony's discussion with Meadow in the kitchen, where he presents himself more and more as someone on the way out. He just wants to spend some time with his grandkids before he dies. When Junior shot Tony, he basically turned Tony into him, the boss, but someone whose time has passed. This weakness is wonderfully conveyed during the entrance to the wedding, where just the act of walking into the wedding is too exhausting for him.

One interesting bit in this scene was Meadow's claim that what the government was doing was absurd, further emphasizing the way that she's being drawn more and more into the family. She does seem very unsure about the marriage to Finn, and we haven't gotten a sense that they have any kind of strong rapport. The closest they come to a major moment is when Finn is about to say something to her at the wedding then stops. That was a great moment, the lack of words saying a lot more than any actual comment would.

Leading up to the wedding, we get some strong scenes with Johnny Sack. The whole opening of the episode was very funny, I particularly liked Johnny's thin daughter lamenting the fact that all anyone talks about in their family is food. Another good bit was Johnny's disgust at the patent leather shoes.

After Tony's near collapse, we get a lot of strong comedy bits at the wedding. AJ's date claiming that she wouldn't eat fish because of the toxins, while at the same time smoking a cigarette. Vito's awkward compliment to Finn. Tony and Johnny talking business with the old people was another hilarious bit. But the funniest thing was when Tony tells AJ he should be observing things if he wants to be an event planner, then AJ goes around and says "An event planner? Where do you come up with this shit," effectively puncturing all the speculation that line in the fifth season finale prompted during the off season.

Side note, that "High ho the merry-o" song had to be one of the most annoying things ever composed, yet as it went on, I couldn't help but enjoy it. Just the guy's sincerity in delivering the lines, like each time he was discovering the "merry-o" for the first time, you just believe in him completely.

However, as things progress, it starts to get sad. We're aware that this could very well be the last time that Johnny will ever see his family outside of prison, so the idea of "giving away" his daugther has a deeper meaning. We start to see the cracks during the "Daddy's Little Girl" song, where Johnny starts singing along, reluctant to let his daughter go. Here we also see the close bond between Meadow and Tony, which seems a lot deeper than what's going on between her and Finn. And another side note, the whole song is a bit creepy.

I was really feeling for John when the marshalls said he had to leave, the moment when the federal jeep pulls up to block the wedding car mars the happiness of the wedding. Johnny tried to give her a perfect day, which his prison stay would not prevent, but in its final moments, the reality of his sentence becomes clear to everyone looking on. And knowing that this is probably the last time he'll see his daughter outside of prison, he starts to break down. Clearly, this is a tough situation and the fact that the marshalls couldn't wait a couple of minutes puts a mar on the whole day. So, John is carried off crying, perhaps aware that even though he claims to have done all this for his family, wouldn't they rather have a less lavish wedding, and actually have him around with them after?

The Johnny Sack crying incident effectively ruins his credibility as a mob leader. While Johnny's fall is sad, it's mainly interesting in the way it relates to Tony's progress. Tony tries to defend Johnny, clearly aware from his own experience of the fleeting nature of life. For Tony, every day may seem like a gift, but for Johnny those six hours literally were a gift, and when it ran out, he had nothing left. Tony is the only one of his crew that can relate to that complete despair. He's got a depth of emotion and intelligence that far exceeds any of the other mobsters, and that's what makes him such a fascinating character. Throughout the show's run, it's been the moments where the characters strive for good, and ultimately fail, that are the most compelling. In their world, doing the right thing is rarely an option, because to help someone else can make you seem weak.

That's the basic lesson that Tony learns when he hears them talking about Johnny. Even though his crew may be helping him out while he's there, they're almost definitely talking about how weak he is when he's gone, and the open insolence that Christopher displays is a clue to him that things aren't like they used to be. If he wants to avoid Johnny's fate, he has to change things.

Melfi's role here is interesting, once again she provides him with business advice, as was the initial conceit of the show back in the first season, but she must be aware that what she's doing is going to lead to violence. In the mob world, reasserting power isn't done through words, it's done through action, and I'd be interested in seeing where she is morally on Tony right now, because in that scene she was pretty much saying "go out and hurt someone." In a lot of respects, the show has outgrown Melfi, we're so aware of Tony as a character that he doesn't need to explain things for us to understand what he's feeling. There's certainly good things that can be done with those scenes, but they don't feel essential to the narrative, as they once did.

She presents him with the idea of the alpha male, and when he goes to Satirale's he literally acts the concept out. He seeks out the strongest male, pretty easy to spot considering the rather shoddy physical state of most of his crew, and beats him up, thus asserting his own dominance, and letting his crew know that the old Tony is still present.

If the episode had ended with that fight scene, I wouldn't have been thrilled with it, it's the subsequent scene in the bathroom that makes it effective. Here we see that even though Tony may be able to win the fight, he's far from the man he used to be. He looks at himself in the mirror, with an expression that says "I've still got it," but then quickly collapses to the floor to vomit. So, we're more aware than ever of the facade of manliness. Tony may have won back his crew's adoration, but he knows that his body cannot afford to do that anymore.

The fight scene is also interesting in how it shows that Tony has changed. He has definitely cooled down, as evidenced by the early scene with the truck, so it becomes difficult for him to find a reason to actually beat someone up. He invents this completely fictitious refrigerator door incident, clearly playing the role of the guy who will snap at anything. He's not that guy anymore. The question that now arises is, if Tony is putting on his old persona while he is at work, will he eventually revert to being that guy again, or will the disconnect between who he really is and who he's pretending be cause him to become more revoled at the world of the mob?

The other major plot thread of the episode involves Vito's troubled life as gay man in a straight world, he's living his very own Brokeback Mountain, and I imagine if these episodes were filmed a few months later, we'd definitely be catching some references to the film. The episode starts out with a number of coded references to his sexuality, not unlike stuff we've seen earlier in the season, however apparently the wedding frustrates him and prompts him to head out to the gay club circuit.

The scene in the leather club may not reach the bizarre heights of "Le Rectum" from Irreversible, but it's still a pretty weird scene. It's certainly not going to pick up any GLAAD awards, but considering the world Vito comes from, it's pretty likely that he'd end up at a place like this. When he first appeared in the leather outfit, I was cracking up, it was such a ridiculous visual, he looked like an S&M Mario.

I read the two guys who saw him were from New York, and it's pretty clear that word about what happened hasn't made it back to Jersey. We saw this in the great scene in the hotel room. So, either word got back to Phil, and he's going to talk to Vito about it next episode, or maybe Vito has killed the two people who saw him. Or it's possible that he killed himself in that hotel room. I will say that seeing drive into a motel alone with that gun was not what I expected to happen. It's harsh, but in his world, it might make more sense to kill himself than to let his secret get out.

If Johnny's crying was a major faux pas, then actually being gay would probably be the greatest social breach, somewhere right around being an informant for the government. Besides the obvious societal prejudice, I think homosexuality is so threatening for these mobsters because their world is such a closed, masculine one, with a lot of open physical affection. They're always kissing and hugging each other, and that's acceptable because they're all so staunchly heterosexual, so if one man turns out to be gay, that makes it difficult to keep up the physicality of the relationships.

I'm surpised that Vito was outed this way, through a random interaction, they had been building up the Finn angle for so long, I assumed that's what would set things off. However, Chase always deviates from the expected, and now I'd guess that the stuff with Finn will be used in some other way. Regardless, Vito's return is going to create some major issues.

Along with this, we get our first idea of what's up with Junior. He's apparently fluctuating between lucidity and total mental detachment, and doesn't remember what happened with Tony. The episode represents a new low for Junior, placed in an institution, begging to go home, even as we know that he's likely there for the rest of his life.

And the one scene that leaves me wondering is Christopher's interactions with the Arabs. Clearly they're setting up that these guys aren't from America, hence the credit card joke, and I'm not sure what kind of family dispute requires a Tek-9 to resolve. Clearly, the Agent Grasso's talk with Christopher a few episodes ago is still on the table and could lead to something down the line.

This was another fantastic piece of work, they've got more complexity and thematic layering in a single episode than nearly any film you'll see, and I'm really eager to see where things go from here. The only bad thing about the show right now is the one week wait between episodes.

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